Tom Waits and David Letterman: An American Television Tradition

Whether or not you listen to his music, you have to appreciate the fact that a singer like Tom Waits has enjoyed decades of fame. When I first heard a song of his — “Innocent When You Dream” over the end credits of Wayne Wang’s Smoke — I assumed the voice I was hearing couldn’t possibly have come from a human being. Or if it did, maybe it came from a human being imitating the manner of some sort of craggy, immortal monster, processed through several distortion boxes. But no, I was hearing the sound of purest Waits, one of the few performers who delivers an entire personality — whether his own or one he’s invented — when delivering a single line. You’ll find evidence of his captivation factor above, in a performance of “Chocolate Jesus,” a song inspired by literally that, on Late Show with David Letterman. Perhaps you won’t feel it, but you can’t argue with its view count on YouTube — 5.3 million and rising.

Waits has made something of a tradition of visiting Letterman’s show, or maybe Letterman has made a tradition of inviting him. Music journalists often slap the word “reclusive” in front of his name, but Waits does make his media appearances, the best of which he makes on Letterman’s show. You’ll find many such segments on Youtube, including ones from 1983, 1986198719882002, 2004, and this year. In 1986, Letterman introduced Waits as “probably the only guest we’ve had on this program who was born in the back of a taxi,” which I assume still holds true. Just above, we’ve embedded his 1983 Christmastime sit-down, which Waits’ fans seem to regard with special fondness, and in which Letterman first learns this choice fact. Beyond that, Waits sings two songs and discusses his various unorthodox residences (motel, trailer, car), the use of brake drums as percussive drums on his then-latest album, and how he intervened when a schoolboy was suspended for bringing one of Waits’ records to show-and-tell. In Waits, we have the prime living exemplar of a certain particularly American style of performing and songwriting, and in Letterman, we have the prime living exemplar of a certain particularly American style of simultaneously silly and self-aware humor. What luck for the country that these two can get together as often as they do.

Related content:

Tom Waits Fishing with John Lurie: ‘Like Waiting for Godot on Water’

A Brief History of John Baldessari, Narrated by Tom Waits

Tom Waits Reads Charles Bukowski

Tom Waits Makes Comic Appearance on Fernwood Tonight (1977)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.



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  • Chris

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t seen the ’83 appearance. You’re right on: Waits and Letterman are uniquely American.

  • L.P. Hale

    Love Tom Waits. Saw him in Minneapolis sometime in the late 80′s … a performance unlike any I have seen. Still resonates with me today, and this video helped be revisit it again.

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